Christmas in Ethiopia (Horn of Africa)
Updated: Jun 5, 2021
A Brief History
The Rift Valley in East Africa Ethiopia,called the ‘Land of Punt’ by the Egyptians,and the ‘Land of Ophir’ in the Bible (1 Kings 9:28 & 2 Chron. 8:18),is one of the oldest independent nations in Africa and one of the oldest civilizations in the world. It is one of only two African countries never to be colonized by European powers, the other being Liberia. The Christian kingdom of Axum is established in Northeastern Africa and eventually becomes Ethiopia around 500 BC.
Ethiopia has a long Judeo-Christian history, going back 3,000 years. Judaism was introduced to Ethiopia via the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13 & 2 Chron. 9:1-12). In the 1st century, Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia by the Ethiopian eunuch, thanks to his encounter with the apostle Philip on the road to Gaza (Acts 8:26-28).Yet, Ethiopians traditionally trace the beginning of Christianity in their nation to the 4th century. This is when two Syrian Christians, St. Frumentius and Edesius, introduced Christianity to Ethiopia. They were responsible for leading the king to Christ, and were allowed to evangelize the nation. King Ezana in turn made Christianity the officially recognized religion of Ethiopia. A little over 200 years later, Ethiopian monks begin translating the Bible into their own language. Due to their unique Judeo-Christian heritage, many devout orthodox Ethiopian Christians follow the dietary laws outlined in Leviticus. They tend to give their children Old Testament names,and many still hold Saturday sacred as the Sabbath. Like Jews, they also do not eat pork.
Beginning in the 16th century, Ethiopia was called Abyssinia; since 1995 its official name is The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In 1930 Ras Tafari was crowned King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The Lowe family is rumored to trace its lineage back to King Haile Selassie! In 1935, Mussolini invaded Addis Ababa. King Selassie unsuccessfully appealed to the League of Nations in Geneva, to assist in ousting the invaders. In 1941 with the assistance of the Brits, they were able to defeat the Italians and reestablish independence.
Over the decades that followed, Ethiopia has experienced much conflict. The 70s saw Haile Selassie deposed by a Marxist military coup and subsequently murdered by them. Not long after, Ethiopia went to war with Somalia and lasted for 11 years. In 1991 Eritrean and Tigrean rebels overthrew the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. This is the same year that the Israeli government airlifted 14000 Ethiopian Jews, calling themselves Beta Israel, to Israel. In 2002 the African Union was formed and headquartered in Addis Ababa. Most recently there has been armed conflict in Tigray leading to a major humanitarian crisis. Tigrayans only make up 6% of the population, but hold significant power and influence in national affairs. Ethiopia and Eritrea troops have been inflicted committed egregious human rights violations against the Tigrayans.
Because of their unique Judeo-Christian heritage, many devout orthodox Ethiopian Christians follow the same dietary laws as Judaism, outlined in Leviticus. They tend to give their children Old Testament names, and many still hold Saturday sacred as the Sabbath. Like Jews, they also do not eat pork. Devout Christians fast for 40 days before Christmas. Since many Orthodox Christians fast every Wednesday and Friday anyway, they are used to the practice. Ethiopians are usually allowed to eat one meal in the evening during the fasts, but they may not eat meat or dairy.
Christmas, known as Gena or Ganna in Amharic, is celebrated on January 7th, because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church still follows the ancient Julian calendar. Ethiopians celebrate Christmas somewhat differently depending on whether they live in the big city or in the country. Usually, everyone dresses in white and attends mass at a local church. If they live in rural areas, the churches are rectangular and were carved out of solid rock over 800 years ago. Modern churches are round and built in three concentric circles. The choir stands in the outer circle. The congregation stands in the middle circle, called the holy place, with men and boys separated from the women and girls. The innermost circle is where the priest serves Holy Communion. There are no chairs, so the congregants stand throughout the service, which can last up to three hours!
Typical Christmas traditions revolve around church and family. Gifts are not a focus of Christmas in Ethiopia. If any gifts are given, it is to young children, and consists of clothing or a small toy. However, the men and boys enjoy playing the game of ganna, which is much like field hockey, and only played on Ganna, thus the name.
A traditional Christmas meal is called wat, a thick, spicy stew made of meat, vegetables and sometimes eggs. Wat is served over injera, a flat sourdough bread, which is used as an edible ‘plate’ for the stew. “Melkin Yelidet Beaal” means Merry Christmas in Amharic.
Ethiopia is part of the 10/40 window, it is 60% Christian, 32% Muslim according to the World Factbook. Pray for the unreached people of Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia has a large number of Christians, they still experience persecution. Pray for an end to the persecution that many Christians suffer at the hands of extremist Muslims in this country. Pray for all of the people of Ethiopia.